Pulitzer Prize Winner Reflects on Race Relations Since the Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson

Imagine that you’re driving on a two-lane highway with a 55 mph speed limit and the car in front of you is driving 35. You’re late or have a sick child on the seat next to you who needs a doctor. What would you do? Pass the other car? If you were African American in parts of the South as late as the 1970s, it was against the law for you to pass a white motorist, no matter how slowly the person was going. “You had to stay in your place,” says Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

Her book tells the story of the 55-year migration of six million blacks from the Jim Crow South to northern cities in search of a better life. Jim Crow laws were government-sanctioned rules of oppression and segregation in the southern states that called for separate schools, public places and transportation for blacks and whites. Laws were so specific as to state that blacks and whites couldn’t play checkers together or swear on the same Bible in court. “Everything you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like,” says Wilkerson.

She recently came to Evanston to speak at a Family Action Network event about what she learned during her 15 years of research and more than 1,200 interviews “about freedom and how far people will go to achieve it.” She describes the migration as not a move but a defection. “It was the only time in American history that citizens had to flee the land of their birth to be fully recognized as citizens,” says Wilkerson.

Her book took its name from the following apt passage by Richard Wright in his own book, “Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth”:

I was leaving the South

to fling myself into the unknown …

I was taking a part of the South

to transplant in alien soil,

to see if it could grow differently,

if it could drink of new and cool rains,

bend in strange winds,

respond to the warmth of other suns

and, perhaps, to bloom

Those who fled were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country and the South did everything they could to stop them from going. Blacks were arrested from their train platform or seats and entire trains were waved through to prevent them from boarding. It was a dangerous time; blacks had to don disguises or board in the middle of the night from less crowded stations, leaving all they had ever known behind and saying goodbye those who had raised them without knowing if they’d ever see them again.

And what were they heading toward, these brave individuals who left home for the freedom to follow their dreams? World War I led to a dwindling supply of the European immigrants the North had been relying upon for labor. Wilkerson says, “African Americans were invited because they needed cheap labor — but they weren’t certain about wanting the people.” And though the North didn’t have the South’s segregation laws, some neighborhoods had rules like restrictive covenants that kept blacks from buying or leasing homes.

This happened to Lorraine Hansberry and her family in Chicago before the Supreme Court made a decision that helped upend the discriminatory practice; she later penned “A Raisin in the Sun” about her experience and became the first black women with a play performed on Broadway. Wilkerson says, “Picture the plantations filled with opera singers, jazz players, defense attorneys, and so on.” She cites jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who migrated from North Carolina to Philadelphia at age 16; playwright August Wilson, whose grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pittsburgh to start a new life; and Olympian Jesse Owens, who arrived sickly and frail from Alabama to Cleveland to discover, as Wilkerson says, “he wasn’t fit for the field but for track and field.” The list goes on and on. For the first time in 12 generations, blacks were able to pursue their interests and develop their talents.

They left places where small acts yielded big punishments. Stealing a hog or $0.75 or arguing with a white man could result in lynching. There was strict enforcement of petty offenses to discourage attempts at bigger things. On average, every four days, someone was lynched in the early days of the 19th century. The lynchings were public spectacles that drew thousands of people. “My book is viewed as a work of history until you turn on the news,” says Wilkerson, “It has almost come back to life in modern day.” Again we are seeing people killed before our eyes, the scenes of their deaths delivered to our computers, smart phones and television screens. Names like Tamir Rice and Eric Garner have become part of our national lexicon.

“A country is a house that needs tending like any other. We need to maintain, renovate and deal with problems that arise. The work on an old house never ends,” says Wilkerson. She likens our current state to a basement filling up with water and warns, “Ignore it at your own peril.”

With a country as religiously, racially, and politically diverse as ours, large-scale change is hard. Yet America was home to “one of the most inspiring leaderless revolutions in history,” says Wilkerson. “Learn the history!” Individuals working together to forge a growing movement were able to do what the president and Congress could not or would not do — they freed themselves.

She scans the audience and says, “We are the manifestation of all that happened.” A mere 22 miles from the neighborhood that tried to force out Lorraine Hansberry’s family, the Evanston Township High School auditorium is filled with people of all ages and races sitting together listening to Wilkerson’s message of hope and her call to action. This is how change begins.

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